Being that I’ve already composed two posts about Murmansk, I need not say much in this final post – the pictures will speak more. Due to the minimal amount of daylight that Murmansk experiences directly surrounding the winter solstice, you will find a beautiful daytime glow – almost like a few hours of twilight. The sun actually never rises above the horizon and the result is this beautiful cool light that penetrates the city briefly and compliments the industrial glow. In this short time of “daylight,” we made our way up the mountain in search of the soldier Alyosha, who watches over the city from his high perch. We never actually made it to him before daylight faded, but we came very close. These are the images from that hike up the mountain amidst the dirty grey snow-covered terrain.
There is no possible way I can actually describe our visit to Murmansk during the city’s darkest days – as Sean and I said, it is something that just has to be experienced. You can look at my photographs but, for me, the photos don’t do the city justice. The feeling we experienced in Murmansk was really strange. Beginning with a 27 hour train ride that transports you into the northern most regions of inhabited land, you begin to feel a sense of “nowhere” and of coldness and darkness….. and then you reach the outskirts of Murmansk. When we first began approaching the city, my eyes were bulging out of my head as I stared at the edges of industrial wasteland that led to this glowing port city. Once in the city center, there is an aura of life – but not life lived by the people….. its industrial machine life. Glowing lights, black smoke (the air-quality was really terrible!), ships, fishing boats and gasoline tanks – right away, all I could think to myself was, “you are in an industrial wonderland, Lindsay!” It was quite breathtaking – being in the arctic circle surrounded by mountains, snow and experiencing the strongest source of light via the aura of industrialization. Shortly after arriving, we began to notice the sound of cranes constantly moving and the regular sound of a muffled voice shouting out commands to the workers in the port. When you paired all of this industrial light and sound with the giant hillside covered in Soviet-style apartment buildings and the giant “Мурманск-Город-Герой” (Murmansk-Hero-City) standing at the forefront, you began to feel like you were in a most surreal place. I told Sean, if ever I felt like I was part of the book 1984, this was it. It wasn’t that the people were strange – it was a completely normal Russian city on that note – it was just the feeling you got when experiencing minimal daylight, industrial glow, the soldier on the mountain watching over the city, the commanding voice and the sound of cranes – that left you feeling like you were in some sort of alternative universe. As I mentioned, it is something that can only be experienced to be truly understood. Because I took so many pictures, I will make yet another post following this one, otherwise it might be overwhelming to look through the nearly 50 photos I really want to show of the city. This first post will be photos of our first and last impressions – being our early afternoon walk as the light of day finally made it’s appearance around 1 p.m. The second post will be from our mountain hike to the overseeing soldier, shortly before daylight dwindled at 4 p.m. Somewhere in between the two hikes up the hills, we had to change shoes and socks because our feet were frozen.
While I understand that I still need to compose another post regarding Murmansk, I currently feel the need to interrupt that story with some most recent events which occurred while traveling in the post-Soviet space. You see, shortly after coming back to Saint Petersburg from Murmansk, we departed again on a train to Moscow and then continued onto Kiev, where we spent the past 6 days. Yesterday morning, we departed the central Kiev train station at 9:40 a.m. and were very excited to have finally gotten tickets with a top and bottom bunk in platzcar (a.k.a. the cheap tickets)! The beds were great and I was all excited for the comfortable train ride home when the ticket man came to collect our tickets and the most dreadful words I could have heard passed his lips (in Russian, of course) – “Excuse me, but do you have a Belorussian transit visa?” For those of you who are not aware of Belarus and transit, please allow me to explain. Similar to Russia, tourists traveling from many Western countries are required to have a visa to both visit and transit Belarus. It’s not always easy to figure these things out ahead of time, for some reason – we tried searching train routes to see if this might be a problem and I had bought the tickets at a travel agency….. the woman there failed to mention the train passed through Belarus, although she knew I held an American passport. Fortunately, the young man working on the train was kind enough to inform me before we got to border crossing. Additionally, we could not buy a transit visa because I held tickets purchased in Russia and not in the Ukraine (for some reason, this is problematic?) Some might say, why did you not just buy tickets and a transit visa in Kiev (where there is probably a map showing the transit route)? Answer: we departed the last day of the New Years holiday (when most people have time off from work)….. everyone needed the train and I wanted to be sure we actually would have tickets.
Anyhow, following our discovery, we exited the train at the first stop – it was in the middle of nowhere. I finally worked up the courage to approach one of the ladies at the ticket office and I tried to explain everything to her in my broken Russian. The women behind the ticket counter seemed quite tickled by our debacle and explained to me that I would need to try and exchange the tickets back in Russia and then she asked me if I had money to buy new tickets? Sean and I did not have enough and so we went searching for a place to change my Rubles or withdraw Ukrainian Hryvnia, but we were in the middle of nowhere. I finally stumbled upon a place with a sign that said “Обмен валют” (Money Exchange). I walked in and asked the women if I could change rubles – she said yes and then sent me into this room full of angry women yelling at people wanting to change money. When I gave them my passport (apparently they document everything), the women couldn’t read it and got really mad. Meanwhile, the young woman next to her was yelling at the old woman changing money next to me. I finally got my Hryvnia and we went back to the train station. I walked up to the counter and told the woman I now had money and could I please buy tickets to Moscow for that day….. sorry, only one ticket left. Sean and I had previously discussed the situation and were anxious to get home, so we declined tickets for the following day (which would have been today) and went to hunt for a taxi driver. Here’s where the story gets real funny.
So I walked out to the parking lot, approached the first taxi driver and ask him how much it would cost to go to the airport. Which airport, he asks? I don’t know the name of it, I tell him – just the one in Kiev. He looks at his taxi driver friends and chuckles and tells me how far it is and how much it will cost. I turned to Sean and translated everything for him and then we agreed to his price. Meanwhile, I’m feeling like I got ripped off but I don’t care because I did not expect a 120 kilometer ride to be super cheap. We got into the car and headed off with our taxi driver and by this time, I could barely speak anymore – my brain had reached its point of exhaustion. But, our taxi driver wanted to talk to us and continued to make conversation with us – mostly in Russian and with a little bit of English thrown in here and there. Two hours later, after having made a few wrong turns, we arrived at the airport in Kiev ready to search for flights. We said goodbye to our driver, who told us we were very good people – he thought it was quite funny that a former enemy country’s citizens could now come to the Ukraine and Russia and communicate in broken language with the taxi drivers….. Slava, our taxi driver, I believe said he was a retired pilot from the Soviet era….. he doesn’t receive a large enough pension, so he needs to be a taxi driver to supplement his income. I have had another “taxi” driver in Russia who had a similar story.
Moving onward, as soon as we were in the airport we dropped our luggage and went searching for plane tickets, both on the internet and at the travel agencies. No flights for that day (yesterday), but we could leave the following morning (today). One flight had an early option, the other was mid-morning. Not wanting to stay in the airport all day/night, I went searching for the information booth to inquire about hotels and prices. The woman told me how much the airport hotel would cost and we decided to purchase the mid-morning tickets and get some rest. After purchasing the tickets, I went back to the information desk and told the new woman there that I had spoken to the previous clerk and that I wanted to reserve a room for me and my husband. Again, I must remind you that I was speaking with her in Russian because it seemed easier for us both to communicate that way. Somewhere in the midst of our conversation she told me that it would cost a little bit more for two people in a private accommodation and then she made a quick phone call – this little old man appeared from out of nowhere and she said, you can go with him and pay him for transportation to a “Частный Дом,” which I have since learned means “private house” (similar to a rental or in-law apartment/guest house). We got into the man’s car and, I confess, I still thought I had booked a private room at a hotel….. my brain was tired of the translation and I only realized later that she mentioned the old man would take us to our “хозяйка,” which I know means landlady in Russian. After about 15 minutes of driving through Soviet block-style apartment housing, we arrived in a small dacha community amidst the Soviet buildings and were escorted to a small private dacha apartment to meet our landlady. Meanwhile, the taxi driver assured us that he would arrive early in the morning to take us to the airport and that I could pay him then. I spoke for a few minutes with our хозяйка and apologized to her for speaking terrible Russian, but thanked her and said maybe we could just have some rest. She left and Sean looked white as a ghost – he was tired and hungry and just wanted to be at a hotel with a hotel restaurant in view. So, we put on our coats and headed to town to find a restaurant.
To conclude the tale, our little “Частный Дом” was great and we awoke quite early this morning to the tune of the rooster next door 🙂 Our driver came to pick us up on time and I paid everybody, thanked them all and said goodbye. It all worked out very well – plus it was an interesting experience, speaking very little Russian myself and trying to communicate with people who do not speak my language but keep talking to me as if I completely understood their language. Honestly, I wouldn’t have changed a thing – it was an experience that I could only have had here and which Sean and I just chuckled about when all was said and done. Plus, it appears that I gave all of the Ukrainians a good laugh as well 🙂 My favorite part was in the end when we were on the way to the airport and our taxi driver asked us if we were from the Baltic states….. At that point, I should have just said yes 😉
Here are a few photos of the interior and back yard of our private home rental. Hope you enjoyed our not-so-touristy tourism tale 🙂
And one last photo, only found in the Ukraine (to my knowledge) – McFoxy’s!